Obama Years Became a ‘Springtime for Hitlers,’ Famed Editor Reckons
Leon Wieseltier on the war in Ukraine, the technological revolution, and his ambition to ‘put a different sort of discourse’ back into the ‘intellectual weather.’
One of America’s most prominent public intellectuals, Leon Wieseltier, believes that President Obama’s foreign policy amounted to “springtime for Hitlers.”
The onetime literary editor of the New Republic, author of “Kaddish,” winner of the Dan David Prize, and current editor of Liberties, a journal of “culture and politics,” offered that thought in an interview with the Sun.
Mr. Wieseltier left the New Republic in the years following its purchase by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, and lost his perch at the Brookings Institution during the height of the #MeToo era. It was their loss, to judge by an hour-long conversation on the politics and culture of his time.
Mr. Wieseltier touched on the war in Ukraine, the perils and promise of the technological revolution, and his ambition to “put a different sort of discourse” back into what he calls the “intellectual weather.”
On Ukraine, he asks whether we can be “ferocious” in the conviction that American power is a force for moral good. For Mr. Wieseltier, “the Ukrainians are our teachers” when it comes to waging war to preserve democracy. “Our learning curve,” he predicts, “will come in Kiev.”
For a thinker who has long promoted a vigorous American presence abroad, the war in Ukraine is the consequence of a “12 year laboratory experiment in what a world without a strong and prominent America would look like. The results are in, and they are not good.”
The crisis, Mr. Wieseltier avers, “began with Obama. It was he who opened the vacuum that Putin rushed in to fill, and who was content to be a bystander to Putin’s theft of Crimea and slow degradation of Ukraine.”
In searching for the root causes of the current carnage and disorder, Mr. Wieseltier fingers what he calls the “Obama Doctrine” — that “the United States will no longer present obstacles and impediments to evil acts, across national borders and within national borders.”
For Mr. Wieseltier, Mr. Obama “fancied himself the ambassador from the 21st century” who “loved to treat the 20th century as the ancient past,” but “the problems and the atrocities of the 20th century are still very much with us.”
Mr. Wieseltier views the current carnage in Ukraine as “the third act of Putin’s long war against post-Maidan Ukraine,” a reference to the 2014 revolution that ousted the Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych.
The first two acts were the conquest of Crimea and the Donbas region, and in Ukraine we are witnessing a denouement. “Obama’s withdrawlism gave a green light to autocrats around the world,” and Vladimir Putin is now speeding ahead.
Impatient with those who see Moscow’s nuclear arsenal as a veto on how far America can go for the defense of Ukraine, Mr. Wieseltier notes that “nobody wants World War III,” including Moscow, and thus we should lean into “raising the costs to Putin” for the assault on Ukraine.
Our fear over what Mr. Putin might do means that the Russian strongman is “calling the plays,” while the American foreign policy establishment pursues “crisis management” on behalf of an American people that Mr. Wieseltier worries is “easily distracted and inward-looking,” possessed of a “fickleness” that has “strategic consequences.”
As both the far right and far left have “trashed liberal democracy,” the wolves of authoritarianism have prowled for power with rapidly evaporating restraint. The upshot of this is that we are already in medias res regarding resurgent cold wars with both China and Russia, two rogue nations now flirting with an increasingly close alliance they call an “unlimited partnership.”
The realities of what Mr. Wieseltier terms “the return of the Sino-Soviet bloc” will soon be felt far afield from Ukraine, with the writer despairing that “we are intellectually and operationally ill-prepared for a Chinese attack on Taiwan.”
While the danger of a continent riven by war can seem remote to Americans, Mr. Wieseltier relates how on a recent trip to Paris he felt “the existential dread shuddering through Europe.” On his time in another capital, Kiev, Mr. Wieseltier insists that “the city did not aspire to be European. It was already European.”
With President Macron burning up the phone lines to Moscow, Mr. Wieseltier believes that the war in Ukraine has buried the prospects of a French far-right presidential candidate, Éric Zemmour, as Europe groggily remembers the bitter lessons of its past in the harsh light of present danger.
A long-time observer of both Israel and American Jews, Mr. Wiseltier believes that “the safety of the Jews of Russia and Ukraine is the sacred duty of the Jewish state,” and is exactly the scenario “for which Zionism was invented.”
At the same time, he castigates the Jewish state for taking in a “disgracefully” paltry number of non-Jewish Ukrainians, reminding: “The Law of Return does not say that only Jews can be admitted to Israel.”
The question of restraint is also central to Mr. Wieseltier’s understanding of how to survive the digital age intact. In the shadow of the concentration of power in persons like Mark Zuckerberg, Mr. Wieseltier urges the need to arrive at a “formula for enlightened use” of technology.
He asserts that “the question of the role of technology in society is not a technological question. The engineers and their corporations will not solve it for us. It is a philosophical and historical question.”
He tells the Sun that this is a moment when the initial “dizzy period” has passed and “alarm has become widespread” over tech’s penetration into larger and deeper realms of human life.
Of the belief that “the world already has more than enough rapid responses,” Mr. Wieseltier suggests that Liberties, the journal he currently edits, centers on “issues and frameworks that are deeper and less transient than anything breaking.” It is his bid to serve as “the custodian of a tradition that I inherited,” one that prioritizes “continuity” over “chyrons, tweets, and rapid responses.”
One example of such a tradition that Mr. Wieseltier told the Sun he is turning to in these days of war is that of an octogenarian Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov, whose music is “poignant, gentle, fortifying, and deep.”
In Mr. Silvestrov’s music, Leon Wieseltier finds art conducive to “the natural pace of genuine thinking” and a tonic to the “abdication of human attention.” One of the composer’s most celebrated works, “Diptych,” is dedicated to a casualty of the 2014 protests in Kiev.
A perch at the Brookings Institution was what Mr. Wieseltier lost at the height of the #MeToo era. This article has been corrected to reflect that fact.